We all have likes and dislikes. But I often wonder what it is to like something? To want to do – or have – more of it, or feel like we have found the ‘truth’? I wonder if there’s some value in unpacking this ‘liking’ thing, and ask whether or not it’s always the best thing that can happen?
The reason I ask is, that I don’t really like karate training. I didn’t really like the years of study that were required to do the job I’m doing now (psychologist). Am I glad that I do those things? Yes, absolutely, and I plan to continue. I want to do them, they are important to me, but they’re not really ‘fun’ when I’m doing it. So what am I on about?
Well I guess it really hangs on what we mean when we talk about liking something. If by liking I mean that I never want to stop, or I effortlessly find myself doing it when I should be performing other tasks, thinking of it as a pleasant diversion or ‘fun’, then no, I don’t especially like training, or studying. I do like beer, movies, chocolate, coffee, bonsai, cherry blossoms, loud music, and sitting in the sun in a beautiful garden (this list could be near infinite – but you get the idea). I am inordinately fond of some games on my Playstation too. I also find my enjoyment of these things can get in the way of things I want to do, when (I believe), they shouldn’t. So there it is, sometimes I disagree with myself… so there must be more than one ‘me’ right?
Perhaps the most interesting thing I have ever heard about liking things came from Marvin Minsky, an awfully clever and quirky chap, widely thought of as the ‘father’ of Artificial Intelligence research. He probably knew more about the architecture of the mind than anyone alive (except that now, he’s dead). Curiously, what he had to say about the mind was oddly reminiscent of how Sigmund Freud characterised it, and this has since found support from neuroscience. The mind is an astonishing, overlapping patchwork of competing systems. Your present ‘self’ competes with your ‘future self’, your biological drives compete with your moral ideas, your economic sense competes with your social desires. In a flash, a problem will switch from being dealt with by a technical cognitive system (e.g. my computer won’t start, I’ll check the battery) to a social one (‘I’ll call Ralph, he’ll know what’s up with this thing and he owes me a favour’) to an economic one (‘Where can a get this fixed cheap? Should I just replace it?’). As each system comes up short, the next one takes over, switching the previous system off. From a computational point of view, this constant tension is breathtaking for its brilliance – millions of years of trial and error refining a computational arms race that no one system is ever meant to ‘win’.
Looking at the mind from this perspective, Minsky suggested when we find ourselves really liking something, we should ‘try to resist the urge to conclude we’re having a good time, but instead think of it as a kind of ‘brain cancer’, because one part of our mind has figured out how to switch off the other parts‘. Minsky – as ever – puts the point probably too baldly, but it’s worth looking into. Not just for the fun things, but also for beliefs and ideas we ‘really agree with’.
This might sound pretty esoteric, but we don’t have to think very hard to find examples in daily life. An obvious one being poker machines, the particular kind of ‘brain training’ they provide switches off the part of the player’s mind that knows it must conserve money, effectively calculate risk, or not leave their children in a hot car. While it is easy and understandable to judge these examples harshly, the extent to which things we like ‘switch off’ parts of our minds we’d rather they didn’t is part of the human condition; the difference is a matter of degree.
As I said, while I don’t play that often these days, I am fond of some Playstation games. One game in particular really had my attention, and playing for a bit one night I was telling myself ‘just one more chapter’ again, and again. After a bit my sleepy looking wife stumbled out from the other room and asked if I in fact had any plans to come to bed. It was, after all, 1 am. This was a bit of an issue as I had to rise less than 5 hours later! The part of my mind that was finding the game rewarding to play had switched off the part that knew the people I was going to look after the next day need me at my best and well rested.
Recently, when I had just an hour to practise in the morning, my attention kept getting taken over by the very impressive cherry blossoms out the window! Years of practise and there I was, utterly immobilised by a tree. The ‘beauty appreciation’ part of my mind had well and truly taken over the ‘practise and concentrate’ bit – and not for the last time I’ll bet. At least I got a new haiku out of it.
In your right mind?
While there’s nothing at all wrong with stopping to admire the flowers now and again, knowing which part of our mind is attending to the issue at hand (and whether it’s the right ‘mind’ for the job) can be handy. Unfortunately this is not a widely developed skill, and it’s hardly a new problem. In fact my grandmother – a plainspoken and insightful woman if ever I met one – once quipped that men were born with two heads, but only enough blood to use one at a time! Hopefully the right one. Grandma was on the money, but at least some of us have more than two minds I hope, and the wrong one gets used even (especially?) at the level of national government. I’m talking about party politics – which is usually governed not by ideology, but the psycho-social cognitive system that deals with in-group membership. Why in-group concerns? Well, it wasn’t that long ago concern about your group membership could be a question of life and death, so it’s no surprise that we have such a system. Proving you’re a good and faithful member of your group by ferociously disagreeing with anyone who isn’t you could keep you in the good graces of your people. But few would argue it’s a good system for deciding on the merit of economic policy. So, by far the most astonishing example in recent memory where the desire to favour ‘my group’ over ‘your group’ overtook reason and political ideology, occurred over climate change policy in Australian politics.
Whether the left of centre (Labour Party, which was in office at the time) introduced an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) because they thought it was the best way to reduce emissions, or because they thought it was likely to get bi-partisan cooperation, two things were certain. First, the very idea of letting the ‘free-market’ decide the best way to reduce emissions was much more like Liberal Party (for overseas readers, these guys are more like the US Republicans) ideology than Labour Party ideology. Second, their hopes of Liberal Party cooperation in such a free market exercise were forlorn.
Now, the Liberal Party members were using their “I must prove I’m nothing like them” social program, instead of the “Hey, does this approach fit with our ‘small government is better’ ideology?” ideology program. So what did they do? They launched a strategy of their own, an interventionist top down scheme called ‘Direct Action’, whereby they picked winners and gave them cash to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions. A left wing (even a Communist) Labour Party couldn’t have come up with better. Of course I have a view about which approach I favour, but that isn’t the point here. Now our approach to de-carbonising the economy is a mess, because both approaches are so routinely sabotaged by the opposite party.
What we like, what we love (or value).
What is the difference between the things that get switched off, and the things we like that do the switching? Well to answer that, a quick visit to the field of behavioural economics is in order. Cass Sunstein (one of the authors of the seminal book in the field ‘Nudge‘) describes people’s preferences as primary and secondary. Primary preferences refer to what we want right now, be it alcohol, playing a game, sex, food or a sleep in (Freud might have called this the ‘Id’; our Instinctual Drives). Secondary preferences are more to do with what we value. What’s more, what we value has a lot to say about our first person preferences. I like a drink, but I value being a healthy role model, and being, well, healthy. I might like the alcohol in the moment but I rarely thank myself later. I love to stay up late and sleep late, but I value being able to train each morning. I rarely thank myself for doing what I like later on. On the other hand, I am – in retrospect – invariably happy when I get enough sleep and get up early to train/practise. So there is a temporal aspect to likes versus values. Likes tend to be enjoyed now, but not so much later. What we value seems to be harder to do now, but is enjoyed more in retrospect – and the mind that laughs last, laughs longest I suppose. OK, so values are better than liking things in the moment. Right, we’ve found the answer now and we can all go back to sleep yeah? Well, no, I don’t think it’s quite that easy. I could be wrong, but what we glibly call values, or ideas we really like can get us into as much trouble as foods we really like. After all, as Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life isn’t worth living’. So, let’s look a little more into values.
Oh my God
So if getting derailed by things we like is a feature of our mental architecture, what can we do? Well, we already have a cognitive mechanism that steers us away from doing whatever we like when we like. It is certainly true that part of our minds are incredibly sensitive to reputation, not only with others, but ourselves. After all, how are you going to convince others you are a virtuous, trustworthy and reliable soul if you can’t even convince yourself right? Well, somewhere along the line we developed a mechanism in our minds that convinced us we were ALWAYS being watched, and judged. Our moral and religious mental architecture was up and running.
Now you might think we’re past all that, but the part of our minds that accommodates religious thought and ritual didn’t vanish just because of Charles Darwin (or Copernicus, or Galileo) came along. Not even close. One of the most potent parts of our religious and moral mental programs is the drive toward ‘purity’ (but there are four others by the way). Not only is it still operating, it is still just as good at derailing ‘reason’ as it ever was.
The scientific enlightenment came along and out went the white robes and ritual bathing (sooo last century guys). Lucky we don’t have to do that stuff anymore, oh wait. There’s Paleo, Keto, V-steaming (if you have to ask…here, and don’t), and gluten free muffins (finally, the truth!!) crowding to take their place – and they have about the same evidence base as self-flagellation, burning sage and holy water. In fact, the most interesting and thoughtful discussion about the modern search for the ‘perfect natural diet’ was written by Alan Levinovitz, who is not a dietician, but a scholar and historian of religion!
So even (in fact especially) our own mind’s ‘values police’ can take over jobs it was never meant to do – like nutrition. It seems that a natural by-product of this ‘healthy competition’ between useful mental programs is that now and then, certain of them will try and launch a ‘coup’, and take over more territory. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s chocolate or activated almonds. How do we know some when something like that might be happening? Let’s get wise to a couple of their dead giveaways…
The old ‘I’ve got this down’ routine.
C. S. Lewis, in his marvellous series of essays ‘The Screwtape Letters‘, describes advice given by a senior demon to his younger ‘rookie’ nephew on how best to bend the mind of a young man ‘the patient’ toward corruption. If you haven’t read The Screwtape Letters, I suggest you have better things to read than my blog right now… off you pop, see you when you get back.
You didn’t did you. Oh all right, have it your way, but please read them after this OK? In sum, the mentor passes on a great trick to his junior colleague.
“Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them…
Humility, expertise and clarity of thought are members of that particular species of characteristics – like being tough, famous or ethical – that if you’re sure you possess them, it’s very likely you do not. At least not right now. So it is with certain ways of thinking. It’s the part of the mind that likes to drink that tells you you’re the next thing to a tee-totaller. It’s the part of your mind that values membership of your particular group that carefully analyses and finds fault with the ideas and propositions of other groups (but curiously, does not apply that scrutiny to their own), and then congratulates you on your clarity of thought and attention to detail. When you’re quite sure you’re seeing things very clearly, I’ve got some bad news!
Social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger have actually measured this effect, finding that confidence in our competence in a range of domains was associated with our actual competence. Except (and here’s the kicker), in the wrong direction. That’s right, the less we know about a topic, the more confident we tend to be about our mastery of it. So very high confidence in our thinking and our reasoning, should be a red flag. I mean you may be right…. but you may be crazy (apologies to Billy Joel).
The Sonic Screwdriver.
I’m a bit of a Whovian, in fact an episode of Doctor Who is a bit of an after dinner ritual around here with the boys. If you’re a Whovian Tragic like yours truly, you’ll know the Doctor has a handy bit of kit about his person called a Sonic Screwdriver. What does it do? Well just about everything from opening doors to reprogramming complex navigational systems on Interstellar Spacecraft. What struck me the other day was that things don’t really get interesting on many of the episodes until the Screwdriver STOPS working for the good Doctor, because then he starts thinking. Got me thinking. What are MY sonic screwdrivers. Well, in my karate training it’s strength. Got a problem? Go harder. Technique not working? Muscle it. I’ll resort to strength in situations where – consciously – I know it cannot work. What it means for me is that I often don’t really learn anything much until I get myself into a situation where strength is no longer available (thankfully at my age that point is getting easier to arrive at every year).
For many, religious beliefs are the ultimate ‘sonic screwdriver’. I’m not offering an opinion here about whether or not ‘Jehovah’, ‘Allah’ or the ‘Holy Trinity’ do exist in an objective sense. But if one or all of them do, I’m pretty sure he (or she) didn’t intend to be used as a ‘one cognitive system fits all’ excuse for not using the mental faculties gifted to us. But who am I to speculate on the mind of my betters, so I’ll leave that here.
But faith that there is a God who has all the answers, will reward us in the afterlife for worshipping Him (or Her) and will routinely intervene in our daily dilemmas does seem to be a common system of thought that switches off our ability and desire to think independently, critically, and in extreme cases even the ability to discern right from wrong when it comes to whether it’s alright to hurt children, or know about it and see fit not to prevent it happening again. I refer of course to the recent Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse as the object case here. From what I have seen and heard the mental ‘sonic screwdriver’ there seemed to be ‘This organisation does God’s work (which the masses need). Therefore the organisation must be protected, even if children get hurt‘. It’s an oddly utilitarian position for a religion that largely relies on deontological rules for its existence, but then it never was designed for intellectual scrutiny was it? Now, I really doubt anyone of the people who covered up and facilitated the abuse woke up in the morning and decided to be really evil. Nevertheless, by allowing a particular default mode of thought to take over at a critical time, astonishing evil was done. For decades.
If there is a better argument for making sure we’re ‘thinking with our right mind’, and making sure we’re actually thinking instead of wheeling out our mental ‘sonic screwdriver’, I can’t think of it. I wonder if, over all those years, anyone in those august organisations asked themselves ‘Even if God appeared right now and ordered me to allow someone to harm children, would that make it right?’ I’ll honestly never know.
What (I think) I do know, is that ‘default positions’ like those described above are not an argument, they’re not a philosophy, nor a position. They’re a soporific; and I’m not the first to say so. When Karl Marx referred to religion as the ‘opiate of the people‘, he was using the word opiate the same way I’m using ‘sonic screwdriver’. An alternative to conscious deliberation about our thinking, especially when the conclusions are difficult and unavoidable. It is human nature to make things easy when they’re hard, and bearable when they’re insufferable. There are many such opiates, religion is a good one, but not the only one, and the job of opiates is to suppress. In all fairness I’ve met a number of very sophisticated religious thinkers. I’ve met a good number of atheists in whom I saw very little evidence of thought at all.
It’s no wonder Leo Tolstoy viewed the ‘Tolstoyan’ movement with a mix of worry and disdain. Anyone who is in a hurry to ‘adopt’ his views had clearly seized the opportunity to abandon critical thought and put someone else’s values in its place. For Tolstoy, there was such a thing as liking his ideas too much. In his own words:
To speak of “Tolstoyism,” to seek guidance, to inquire about my solution of questions, is a great and gross error. There has not been, nor is there any “teaching” of mine … I advised this young lady to live not by my conscience, as she wished, but by her own.
My PhD supervisor, several years my junior and possibly the most brilliant scholar I will ever know, wrote an article once concerning neuropsychology and aspects of religious thought. Its findings were horribly misinterpreted in the media, to the extent one article suggested my colleague was arguing the Pope was – in fact – a psychopath! My supervisor later told me that while the hate mail he received was bad enough, the fan mail was worse!
If you’re really taken with someone’s ideas, if you really feel like you’re hearing the ‘truth’, perhaps a step back might be in order. Maybe it is the truth. Maybe it’s just really comfortable for you, but in my experience they’re rarely the same thing. But when your usual ways of thinking stop working, don’t be upset. You might be about to learn to use parts of your mind that don’t get out much!
Do whatever you ‘like’, but when we like something a whole lot, it never hurts to think about our thinking. Is anything getting switched off that perhaps shouldn’t be? In any case, don’t take my word for it.
I hope you ‘liked’ this post, but not too much. 🙂